I learned quite early in my career that building high-performing teams is something that can be easily achieved by managers who promote creativity, share ownership, and encourage the team to share ideas freely. By behaving this way, they can build a motivated team that will go the extra mile.
Let me start by sharing a story. Some time ago, I joined a start-up with a bold goal: to build a new telephony network across four countries with all the associated software to support it. I was promised hard work with much reward. As it happens, this turned out to be true.
In this start-up, there was a small team who were fun to be with, engaging and who encouraged everyone to share ideas, no matter how silly they may have sounded out loud. People were free to express themselves and the “silly” suggestions often triggered thoughts about things that we could use to improve our offering and distinguish ourselves from the competition.
The work was hard and the hours were long, but it was a great place to work. The energy, teamwork, and shared ownership motivated everyone. We were a cohesive unit with shared goals. What I learned there, and took with me, was that giving people the freedom to express themselves with the authority to match the responsibility that they had, delivered exceptional results.
If you’re a manager and are looking for ways to take your team to the next level, I hope this post will help you. I’ll share some lessons I learned to build a high performing team.
Characteristics of High Performing Teams
First of all, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page: what is a high-performing team? High-performing teams are teams where all members are deeply committed to achieving the same goals and, as a consequence of that, deliver superior business results. One of the greatest things about these teams is that they usually show greater degrees of employee satisfaction and customer retention.
Some of the characteristics of high performing teams include:
- A shared vision: all team members share the same vision and are focused on achieving the same end-goal.
- Team trust: the team exhibits strong teamwork capabilities based on a deep trust and mutual respect for each other.
- Identifiable roles: every member knows exactly where their team fits in the broader business context, and what is expected of each individual to reach the common goal.
- Open communication: dialogue is a pillar of these teams. It ensures every member is aligned, the plan progresses as expected and that the goals are achieved. In this context, discussions and disagreements are welcomed when geared towards problem-solving and innovation.
- Strong cooperation and engagement: in high performing teams, each member possesses a certain set of skills and knowledge that complements other team members’ skills and knowledge in a way that cooperation is fostered and synergy is of essence.
- Decentralized hierarchy: the role of the team leader is to serve and to answer the team’s needs, ensuring there are no impediments to reaching the end goal. Decisions are made by reaching a team consensus, or by the team lead after discussions with the team.
The question is, how do you get there? Moreover, how do you get there quickly? In a world that expects everything on demand and where projects are delivered with the speed of low-code, you don’t have the luxury of time so you need to build your high performing team quickly.
Building a High-Performing Team
Now, let’s get down to what brought you to this article. Here are five lessons I learned, and put into practice, that have helped me and my team to outperform.
Lesson 1: Take Time to Know Your Team
To build a high-performing team, you need to provide yourself with a little time to observe and listen to your team. Study the interactions and see who is working well together and who needs encouragement. Who is loud and who is quiet? Do you have a mood hoover (I’ll get to these in a bit)? Do you have an idealist you need to anchor? A thinker who needs to be nurtured? How do the team members handle stress? Can they take responsibility and ownership? Are there members who need a figurative hug or active encouragement? Harness your empathy and social skills and interact with the team to work them out.
Once you have established your team’s characters, strengths and weaknesses it will be easier for you to successfully build a team that is high performing. To give you a head start, one thing I do, that I’ve found to be very effective, is to have a quick kick-off session that’s fairly relaxed and conversational. Give the team an insight into you and seek the same in return. Asking somewhat innocuous questions like “What did you want to be when you grew up?” can kick-start some insightful conversations. Don’t make it like an interview or one of those awful ice-breakers that so often start training sessions; just have a chat and let the conversation flow. You’ll get a good initial sense of the team that way.
Lesson 2: Lead With Your Team
The question here is: how do you win your team over and get them to trust and follow your lead? I have three basic “rules” that I live by and always let my team see them from day one on any project.
Rule #1: Be Honest
I find that honesty goes a long way to achieving that. Let the team see you, who you are and what makes you tick. Be transparent and always tell them the truth. Being seen to tell others the truth goes a long way to building trust too.
Early in my career, I worked for a small company that was a joint venture between an ISP and an energy provider. When I joined the company, the relationship between the senior stakeholder and the IT team wasn’t very good. There had been several issues with customer billing, and the senior stakeholder felt she wasn't getting the full picture. As I had joined the team to resolve some data integrity problems before a system upgrade, she wanted to speak to me about what I was going to do to sort it out prior to the migration. It was not a comfortable meeting, and she started it by saying that she was on the verge of recommending to her board that the project be shelved. I listened to her carefully and I told her exactly what I thought should be done, how I would do it, and how long it would take. I was polite but completely honest about the situation. She thanked me and left to go back to her office.
Two hours later, I was called into my Director’s office and told that I had saved the business. I was expecting a reprimand for being so honest, but it turned out to be precisely what was needed. The senior stakeholder just said that I was the first person who had told her the truth and she trusted me to solve the problem as I’d laid it out for her. I have stuck to that inner principle of always being open and honest. This doesn’t just mean that you should lay your cards on the table at the start of a project and then keep things to yourself if they are going wrong. Being transparent throughout a delivery not only continues to build the trust, and nurture the relationship, it can also uncover solutions you may not have thought of.
Rule #2: Do What You Committed to Do
There is no quicker way to lose hard-won respect than to fail to deliver something you have committed to deliver personally. Don’t ever commit to delivering something and then fail to do so. Not only will you lose the respect of your team, but you will also lose your credibility. Don’t think that telling them there will be a delay or that there is a delay out of your control will win you back some of that lost ground. It won’t. We all know that you can do something well 99 times out of 100, but it’s the single failure that everyone remembers. Just don’t do it, it isn’t worth what you will lose.
Rule #3: Everyone’s Time Is Valuable
This third one is perhaps the one that is the hardest to get others to recognize and implement. I picked this one up when I was reviewing a C-SPAN item about Betsy Bernard’s speech at the Women & Diversity Leadership Summit on October 24, 2002. In her speech, she describes her "seven golden rules of leadership," the first of which is
"Everyone's time is valuable."
People tend not to keep their manager or someone more senior waiting but how many times have you kept your team waiting or allowed interruptions to pause the discussion whilst the team sits around waiting for you to finish? Are you the manager who comes to a meeting and spends their time glued to their phone or clicking and tapping at their laptop? If you can’t pay attention, don’t come to the meeting. Don’t be the manager that thinks being in the room is the same as being present. It is demoralising for the team as it delivers the message that they are not important enough for your time. Whilst these actions will ultimately lead to costs in monetary terms, they also convey disrespect to your team–this struck a chord with me then and still does today.
Lesson 3: Play the Strengths of the Team
Once you understand your team, you can distribute tasks more effectively, making sure that everyone's strengths are harnessed and that any development points are supported and grown. Let's say you have a new member of the team who is inexperienced in your business but very good at making decisions–just not always the right one for your business. You also have someone who's very experienced in your business, they know the processes, and know what the best practice is but they are very indecisive. Put these two people together on a project, get them working side by side and quickly, they will make the right decisions for your business in the context of the project. Your decision maker will, with the support of the experienced business user, quickly identify what the right solution for your project is.
If you have someone who is stressed when they are given deadlines, negotiate the deadlines. Ask them how long they think they will need, work it into your plan. This gives them ownership of the work and the delivery date without feeling you are imposing it on them.
Lesson 4: Work Around the Mood Hoovers
When discovering personalities within a team, you will, inevitably, find a mood hoover. Mood hoovers have the ability to sap all the joy and energy from a team. They are the ones who always moan, always complain, they find fault, they are never happy. Unfortunately, there are limited tools against mood hoovers.
Suggestions run from avoiding them to firing them because they can do immense damage to team morale and performance. You can’t avoid a member of your team and firing them probably isn’t something that you can do easily, at least not in most European countries. So, you need to try to identify what makes them tick or what would give them a purpose to try to divert or suppress their negativity.
Let’s say you have someone who believes that their ability is unsurpassed and that other people will never measure up. They tend to mention this every day. It gets so that you don’t want to face them as you know what’s coming. If you recognise this pattern early, you can quickly implement a process of starting the day by spending a few minutes telling them how much you value their input and encouraging them to mentor the team through the day’s tasks. This can help in two ways: it quickly releases you to deal with important project tasks, and it massages their fragile ego whilst also giving them a sense of purpose for the day—win-win.
Maybe you have someone who is always critical of every idea, claiming that the solution won’t work. Instead of challenging them on why they think it won’t work, ask them what they think will work. This will either drive out a solution or shut them down. There are many other examples and, no, not all of them will work, but you get the idea. Get to know the person, divert the negativity.
Lesson 5: Don’t Neglect Emotional Intelligence
There are many preconceptions about techies and geeks being social misfits who are entirely lacking in their understanding of the real world—thank you “Scorpion” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Whilst this may be true for a small minority, you’ll generally find that most of us are, in fact, social animals just like you.
Possessing and developing our emotional intelligence is important to our career growth and success, in much the same way as it matters in businesses across the industry spectrum. We need to foster relationships with clients – people buy from people. We need to foster relationships with our peers so that our deliverables are the best they can be and our emotional well-being is maintained.
We need to foster relationships with our managers so that we can get the support we need to grow our careers. If we want to perform at our best and reach our potential, we need to learn about others quickly, build relationships that are genuine and trust in our “touchy-feely” instincts.
In conclusion, get to know your team by whichever method works quickly for you—if you don’t know what that is, try different things, find out what works for you and practice. Pair up members of the team, where possible, to complement each other and make them more effective together. Let the team know who you are and show them what makes you tick. Be honest, deliver what you committed to, and treat your team with respect.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a software development technology to accelerate your delivery cycles and help your team take the next step at high performance, take a look at low-code. A recent study shows that users of low-code are nearly 7% more likely to release new software versions more frequently than those not using low-code to release monthly or more frequently.